From Rick Casey.
The three judges who decided the case include one Democrat and two Republicans. Ironically, the decision may have gone the other way if one of the judges hadn’t been punished for joining in an earlier ruling in the case. Here’s the backstory.
Judge Rodriguez, a graduate of Harvard University and the University of Texas law school, was appointed to the Texas Supreme Court by Gov. Rick Perry. He lost in the Republican primary, however, when he had to stand for election. He returned briefly to private practice before being appointed to a federal district bench here by President George W. Bush.
Back in 2013, Rodriguez was asked to fill out the voluminous paperwork to be considered for promotion to the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. President Barack Obama had selected a Democratic judge from Corpus Christi, but the two Republican senators reportedly made it clear they would block her nomination. So the Obama administration lit on Rodriguez — a nonideological choice who had been appointed to important benches by two Texas Republican leaders.
But the appointment languished until 2015 when, a friend of Rodriguez said, he was told his name was withdrawn because of a lack of support from the two senators. The reason: His previous rulings in the redistricting case.
Had Rodriguez been elevated to the appellate court, he might well have been replaced with a more conservative Republican on the three-judge panel hearing the redistricting case. The 2-1 decision could have gone in the other direction, with Rodriguez’s replacement joining the very conservative third member of the panel, Judge Jerry Smith of Houston.
We don’t know for certain that the ruling would have been different had Judge Rodriguez not been on the district court. I don’t know what the overall population of judges in that district is like, and I suppose the plaintiffs could have filed in a different district. For what it’s worth, where I think the plaintiffs got lucky was in having two judges of color hearing the case. We’ll never know how things might have been, but I for one am glad with how they turned out.
On a tangential note, this Texas Lawyer story from awhile ago talks about how the Fifth Circuit changed during the Obama years.
At first glance, the math confronting President Barack Obama’s three appointees on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit appears daunting.
If you include senior members of the bench, Obama’s appointees—Judges James Graves, Stephen Higginson, and Gregg Costa—are outnumbered more than 4-to-1 by judges who were chosen by Republican presidents.
Dig deeper, however, into court events and listen to appellate lawyers who make their livelihoods practicing before the Fifth Circuit and a more nuanced picture emerges. In the last eight years, the Fifth Circuit bench has begun shifting away from predictable conservative patterns, the appellate lawyers said.
Although Obama appointees may only be part of that change, they are using their youth, vigor and intellectual curiosity to influence outcomes, according to appellate lawyers including Jane Webre, a partner in Austin’s Scott Douglass & McConnico who practices civil appellate law and handles most of her firm’s appeals.
“It has moved away from how staunchly conservative it was known to be,” said Webre, who works with associates who have recently clerked for the Fifth Circuit.
Senior Fifth Circuit Judge Thomas Reavley, an appointee of former President Jimmy Carter, ranks among many who heap praise on the Obama picks. Reavley, who served as a state district and Texas Supreme Court justice before he started on the Fifth Circuit bench, observed its judges in the ’60s courageously enforce emerging civil rights protections. Asked by Texas Lawyer recently if he longed for the days of those judges, Reavley said Obama’s three appointees were equally equipped with the smarts and dispositions to handle such challenges: “I don’t think politics would enter into their decisions,” Reavley said.
Kurt Kuhn of Austin’s Kuhn Hobbs agrees. “They are not doctrinal. They are known as fair and not predisposed to any particular side,” Kuhn said.
On the Fifth Circuit, Higginson, Costa and Graves share the bench with six judges tapped by George W. Bush, six by Reagan and two by George H.W. Bush. Former Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Carter together had appointed only five of the judges currently serving on the Fifth Circuit. Two vacancies are currently pending.
Obama’s ability to shape the Fifth Circuit has been hampered by the powerful sway held over the nomination process by Texas’ two Republican senators. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz are both members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and also appoint the Federal Judicial Evaluation Committee, which recommends federal judicial candidates to the White House.
It was three years before Obama made his first appointment to the Fifth Circuit. David Prichard, the committee’s chairman and partner in the San Antonio office of Prichard Hawkins Young, has no expectation that the court’s two vacancies will be filled before Obama leaves office.
“Those positions are just carefully negotiated between the Texas senators and the occupants of the White House,” Prichard said.
And yet, despite Obama’s difficulty seating judges on the Fifth Circuit, the passage of time and societal change has tempered the Fifth Circuit and made it less conservative, said Webre of Scott Douglass.
Given how few appointments he has made, Webre added, “I don’t know if we can say: ‘Thank you, President Obama,’ for those changes.”
But she, Gunn and Townsend detect a change. Before Obama took office, Webre and associates at her firm who clerked recently at the Fifth Circuit counted the active full-time judges on that court: There were 13 Republican and four Democratic appointees. That ratio has since shifted to 10-5.
But then Webre and the associates adjust for individual judges’ tendencies, regardless of who appointed them. “Not all Republicans are created equal,” Webre explained.
She and the former clerks put asterisks beside some of the Republican-appointed judges—she wouldn’t say which judges specifically—to denote that they lean less conservative than their fellow Republican appointees. Webre’s estimate is that eight of 15 judges are moderate or liberal compared with seven who are very conservative.
That has made a difference when lawyers receive an unfavorable panel decision.
“Now,” Webre said, “seeking an en banc hearing is a realistic venture.”
That story was published just before the November election, and I had flagged it at the time to discuss how things might change even more for the better post-Obama. Needless to say, that premise was scotched shortly thereafter. Nonetheless, this seemed like a reasonable time to dredge it up. Maybe we’ll get to discuss it again in a more positive way in four years.